The Nameless Horror

Barry Eisler and publishers as paper distributors

Over the weekend, Barry Eisler put up a post summarising and explaining a talk he’d given on publishing at Pike’s Peak Writers’ Convention, and there has been a lot of to and fro on the net about it.

Go and read it (it’s too long to quote in quantity here); it’s an interesting bit of writing. The key to the debate really comes from the first two points on his summary:

  • Up until roughly six years ago, the only viable means of book distribution was paper. Accordingly, a writer who wanted to reach a mass audience needed a paper distribution partner.

  • The primary value-add offered by legacy publishers has traditionally been paper distribution. Certainly legacy publishers offer many other services (much of which is outsourced) — editorial, copyediting, proofreading, book packaging, and marketing, to name the most obvious — but the primary service, the one the others are built on, has always been paper distribution.

And I largely agree with him (taking care to note the context provided by everything else he says; the talk/post seems to be pretty balanced). Much of what he says is hard to argue with (one little wince at the by-now-standard use of royalty percentages as a stick to tickle publishing’s underparts with aside; I’m pretty sure quoting the difference in an ebook-related post which isn’t actually about percentage royalties should qualify for some kind of Godwin-esque internet law). There is, for me, one minor point of not-quite-truthiness, and one absent thing very much worth mentioning. Let’s deal with the former first:

As I’ve noted, an author who wants to reach a mass audience in paper needs a paper distribution partner. But an author who wants to reach a mass audience in digital needs no distribution partner at all. It is simply a fact — a fact — that a lone author can distribute 100% as effectively by herself as she can with the assistance of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate (again, editing, marketing and all the rest is a separate story; for the moment, we are talking only about distribution).

To put it another way: a publisher offering an author digital distribution services is like someone offering me air. I already have it and I don’t need to pay extra for it. I know it can be unsettling in some circles to have the matter stated so baldly, but I really don’t think the matter is disputable, either.

It’s not a fact that a lone author can distribute 100% effectively as a publisher in digital. Not quite, or at least not the way it’s meant.

Yes, anyone and everyone can publish to Amazon and Amazon is 90% of the digital market. The other 10% can be trickier, and in some cases, notably iBooks and Google (if anyone ever bothers to buy anything from that part of the Play outfit), having a publisher and their pre-agreed publishing channels on those platforms makes access far easier.

If you’re outside the US, AFAIK even though the Nook store has expanded to the UK, you can’t self-publish through B&N. You have to go through a quasi-publisher aggregator, and that means Smashwords, and until the start of this year that meant .doc files and Meatgrinder and hellish formatting struggles. (Especially if you’re on a Mac. In which case, forget it; OS X’s handling of font styles is incompatible and unless you sacrifice to the blind monkey god in the exact right way you won’t have italics or bold text, just default-rendered fallback font because Meatgrinder can’t find a font named “Georgia Italic”. But I digress.) Now you can at least upload epub files only. But then, whichever way you do it, no certainty with some of the outlets SW feeds to that what you’ve uploaded will be accepted, with no reason given if it’s not. You can go to iBooks direct, but you have to stump for an ISBN and channel it through iBooks Author, which again is another hurdle to jump.

It’s not impossible, certainly, and the differences are small (a little larger if you include some discoverability in distribution, where a publisher may give you greater profile by seeding little ‘also in our line of magnificent horse porn books…’ cross-author advertising shoutouts in their editorial lines), but distribution is certainly a fair bit easier if you have a publisher, even if the results are the same. (The same argument also holds, of course, for the various other services that go into book publishing, but we’re leaving those aside for now.) It’s less like being offered air for money and more like being offered the chance to ride the elevator up 15 floors for a small fee instead of taking the stairs for free. Yes you can do it yourself, but it may be a slog.

(Note, though, that the control you can exert on distribution - and the freedom not to have DRM etc. - is also not to be underestimated on the self-publishing side.)

The thing that isn’t mentioned, but is worth remembering, is that traditional publishing offers one other thing that self-publishing doesn’t: money up front.

Yes, it may not be much, it may be on an insulting, trifling percentage compared to the vast riches of that thar interweb, it may mean sealing your rights away in a locked vault protected by fiendish traps for as long as your line endures, but if you don’t have much/any cash, or you need a reliable (ish - scheduling changes can futz with advance payments as I’m very well aware thanks to my third Penguin book) timeline of income because you’ve got a family, commitments, all that jazz, the value of advances beyond their huge/middling/tiny monetary figure shouldn’t be ignored, and neither should publishers’ willingness to pay those advances irrespective of current sales if you’re starting out and they believe you have a crack at the long term. If you write a couple of novels and hardly anyone buys them, you can justify to yourself and those depending on you the time it takes to write more if someone’s willing to keep footing the bill. If you write a couple of novels and self-publish them and hardly anyone buys them, tough shit. That advance investment can and does make it easier to keep writing more cool stuff and hopefully then to get it into more hands and eyeballs and heads. Which, surely, is the aim.

Small points, but worth making, allowing for the rest of what Barry says being largely agreeable and quite measured, at least IMO.